DVD Reviews for 8/3: Strong To The Finish
By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 08/02/07 13:29:18
In which your faithful scribe says goodbye to a trio of legends, says hello to the long-overdue return of another legend and does battle with films involving attacks by real sharks, Nazi shark-men, aliens, Vikings and even a 60-ft glass arachnid in a column so exciting, it just had to come out a day earlier than usual.
The entertainment world was rocked this week by the passing of three legitimately legendary individuals–filmmakers Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni and talk show host Tom Snyder. In the wake of their respective passings, many have sat down to write about the way that they redefined their respective mediums by their unique approaches and how their influences can still be felt today. I could theoretically do the same thing but the simple fact is that I doubt that I could say anything that hasn’t been said in a far more eloquent fashion by others. Instead, I would suggest that the best way to pay tribute to these three people is to experience their work for yourself via DVD. Many of the finest works of Bergman and Antonioni are currently available, in most cases with extensive supplementary materials that effectively illustrate what it was that they did that made their work so special. In the case of Bergman, I would recommend checking out the great discs that Criterion has put out for such key films as 1957's “The Seventh Seal,” 1960's “The Virgin Spring,” 1972's“Cries and Whispers,” 1973's “Scenes From a Marriage” and the work that may well be his masterpiece, his 1982 valedictory “Fanny and Alexander.” As for Antonioni, his DVD filmography still has a couple of significant gaps (though perhaps his passing will spur interest in the long-out-of-print “Red Desert” and the long-unavailable “Zabriskie Point”) but there have been lovely releases of such mysterious and eternally unknowable films the 1960 artistic breakthrough “L’Avventura,” the 1966 commercial breakthrough “Blow-Up” and the recently-reissued 1975 head-scratcher “The Passenger.” (You might also be interested in checking out “Eros,” a 2005 three-part anthology consisting of two short films from Wong Kar-wai and Steven Soderbergh made in tribute to his unique style and a third by Antonioni himself.) As for Snyder, his inimitable interviewing style can be seen in two DVDs comprised of material taken from his landmark show “Tomorrow”–“The Tomorrow Show–Punk & New Wave” (in which he engages in fascinating and often edgy discussions with the likes of Elvis Costello, Patti Smith and, most infamously, John Lyon–a.k.a Johnny Rotten–at a time when such artists were usually kept far away from network television) and “The Tomorrow Show–Tom Snyder’s Electric Kool-Aid Talk Show” (in which he chats with such cultural icons as Timothy Leary, Ken Kesey and The Grateful Dead).
On a much lighter note, the week offers viewers a chance to revisit the work of another celebrated icon with the release of “Popeye The Sailor 1933-1938: Volume One,” an amazing 4-disc set from Warner Home Video that marks the long-awaited DVD debut of the earliest screen appearances of everyone’s favorite spinach-scarfing sailor. Originally introduced in the funny pages by cartoonist E.C. Segar as a one-shot character in his “Thimble Theater” comic strip, the character was an instant sensation and within a short time, he became the central focus of the strip. A few years later, Hollywood, which had been spinning off newspaper strips into animated cartoons with some success over the years (such as “Mutt & Jeff,” “Krazy Kat” and “The Katzenjammer Kids”), came a-calling and a deal was inked between King Features Syndicate (who controlled the strip) and animators Max and Dave Fleischer, the men behind such popular cartoon series as “Betty Boop” and “Out of the Inkwell” as well as the famous “Superman” shorts of the 1940's, to bring the character to the screen. After testing the character’s on-screen appeal in the 1933 Betty Boop short “Popeye the Sailor,” Fleischer officially began his Popeye series a few weeks later with “I Yam What I Yam” and would proceed to make 106 additional films with the character before selling the rights to Paramount in 1942 who would go on to produce an addition 125 shorts through 1957. (As large as these numbers may sound on the surface, they don’t even begin to take into account the hundreds of cartoons that were later produced exclusively for television.)
This set comprises the first 60 of the Fleischer “Popeye” cartoons–everything from “Popeye the Sailor” to “Big Chief Ugh-Amugh-Ugh.” In recent years, these cartoons have been somewhat hard for fans to see–although once staples of local television stations, few such outlets today are willing to spend valuable air time on old black-and-white cartoons–which makes their presentation here all the more welcome. For starters, an amazing amount of restoration work has gone into fixing up these old shorts and the results will dazzle the eyes of any cartoon buff–as good of a job as Warners has done on their Looney Tunes collections, they have managed to surpass themselves with their efforts here. (You will be especially knocked out by the two full-color two-reelers found here, 1936's “Popeye the Sailor Meets Sinbad the Sailor” and 1937's “Popeye the Sailor Meets Ali Baba’s Forty Thieves.”) Once you get beyond the visual beauty of the cartoons on display, you may be surprised to discover just how well these shorts have held up over the years as entertainment. The cartoons collected here have a raucous energy to them that still resonates today as well as flashes of surreal humor and the kind of violent content that, while still well within the confines of cartoonishness, may well raise a few eyeballs–at one point, it appears as though our hero not only beats Harpo Marx to death for playing his harp after hours but administers a licking to Mahatma Gandhi. (And at this point, it should probably be noted that, to quote the packaging, this set “is intended for the adult collector and may not be suitable for children.”) And since the shorts are presented in chronological order (unlike the Looney Tunes collections), it gives viewers a chance to watch how the various characters–including Popeye’s longtime sweetheart Olive Oyl, his mortal enemy Bluto, adorable infant Swee’Pea and the always-ravenous Wimpy–changed and evolved over those first five years on the screen.
Beyond the shorts, “Popeye the Sailor 1933-1938: Volume One” also contains a large variety of bonus features that will appeal to hard-core animation buffs and casual fans alike. Many of the shorts feature commentary tracks from animators (including John Kricfalusi) and animators–one even features comments from the late Jack Mercer, the man who supplied the voice of Popeye from 1935 on–discussing the history of Popeye and his transition from the funny pages to the silver screen. “I Yam What I Yam” is a fascinating 40-minute documentary that examines the entire “Popeye” phenomenon, including his later incarnations on television and the underrated live-action 1980 film version directed by Robert Altman. “Forging the Frame: The Roots of Animation 1900-1920" is a half-hour documentary that delves into the early days of film animation and includes a number of amazing clips and interviews with such experts in the field as Joe Plympton, Ray Harryhausen and Terry Gilliam. There are also a number of mini-documentaries focusing on the individual characters, the history behind the music and the vocal performances and the making of the two color shorts. If that weren’t enough, an additional sixteen cartoons from the silent era–including several of the “Out of the Inkwell” shorts that were among the first films to blend live-action and animation–have also been tossed into the mix as a final bonus. Add all of these elements together and you get a set as invigorating as a case of spinach and a leading contender for the title of DVD of the Year.
A Warner Home Video release. $64.98.
NEW AND NOTABLE
20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH: 50th ANNIVERSARY EDITION (Sony Home Entertainment. $24.95): In this sci-fi near-classic, best-known for being an early example of the work of visual-effects legend Ray Harryhausen, an American spacecraft crash-lands off the coast of Sicily containing a single surviving crew member (William Hopper) and a strange gelatinous mass that soon grows into a 20-foot-tall monster that eventually wreaks havoc upon Rome. While not as spectacular as such later Harryhausen classics as “Jason and the Argonauts” and “First Men In The Moon,” this is still an entertaining potboiler that serves as a much-needed reminder of the marvels that fantasy films could convey in the days before everything was tarred with the heavy-handed brush of digital effects. This two-disc sets includes a commentary by Harryhausen as well as two versions of the film–one in the original black-and-white and the other a colorized version personally supervised by Harryhausen.
300 (Warner Home Video. $34.98): Of course, there were evidently enough people out there who didn’t mind the heavy-handed brush of digital effects to make this CGI-heavy adaptation of Frank Miller’s graphic novel on the Battle of Thermopylae into the biggest surprise hit of 2007. For a while, the ultra-stylized look that director Zack Snyder has utilized in order to evoke the same look as Miller’s original art is undeniably impressive but as the film goes on (and on), it soon becomes an endless series of scenes involving beefy guys clad in little more than jerkins and canola oil whacking each other with their swords–this is fine if you happen to be Capt. Clarence Oveur but somewhat less so if you aren’t.
THE ARCHIES SHOW–THE COMPLETE SERIES (Classic Media. $26.95): Look, I am sure that there are plenty of people out there eager to pick up this set of Saturday morning cartoons so that they can bop along to the strains of “Sugar Sugar” or “Bang-Shang-A-Lang” while watching Jughead stuffing himself with hamburgers and Betty and Veronica inexplicably fighting over America’s favorite red-headed cartoon Everyteen. That said, if I want to watch the adventures of an animated cartoon rock group, I’ll take Josie and the Pussycats in a heartbeat–where the hell is their complete series DVD? Wait–you say that it comes out on September 18? Oh well, forget I said anything and move along.
BLUE WATER, WHITE DEATH (MGM Home Entertainment. $19.98): Fans of the Discovery Channel’s annual “Shark Week” festival should definitely check out this landmark 1971 documentary in which a film crew travels the world in order to find and film a great white shark in its natural habitat. Although the film may not be as technologically adept as current undersea documentaries, the hair-raising footage captured by director Peter Gimbel and his crew (including Ron and Valerie Taylor, who went on to shoot shark footage for “Jaws” on the basis of their work here) is still pretty extraordinary to behold even today
CREATURE (MGM Home Entertainment. $14.98): In this TV movie based on Peter Benchley’s novel “White Shark,” a remote island that is home to a top-secret military base is invaded by an unspeakable creature–some kind of bizarre shark-man hybrid, not co-star Kim Cattrall–and only Craig T. Nelson can save the day. In case you were harboring any doubts, it is, as I recall, just as dumb as it sounds.
THE DARWIN AWARDS (Fox Home Entertainment. $19.99): Loosely based on the popular series of books chronicling some of the incredibly idiotic ways in which people have managed to kill themselves over the years, Joseph Fiennes and Winona Ryder play a pair of insurance investigators who travel the country to investigate the circumstances behind some especially bizarre claims. After a high profile debut at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival (where it premiered just after the untimely death of co-star Chris Penn), this weirdo comedy never wound up garnering a theatrical release–now you can investigate for yourself and determine whether the claims that it wasn’t worth releasing were deserved or not.
FILM NOIR CLASSIC COLLECTION: VOLUME 4 (Warner Home Video. $59.98): In what has become a much-awaited mid-summer tradition, Warner Brothers digs into their vaults to come up with another box set of film noir titles. Since virtually all of their best-known holdings in the genre have already been released, the studio has upped the ante by giving viewers more bang for their buck by putting two features on each disc along with the expected commentary tracks and other bonuses. Disc One includes 1948's “Act of Violence” (war veteran Van Heflin is pursued by vengeance-minded Robert Ryan over a mysterious incident that occurred in a P.O.W. camp) and 1950's “Mystery Street” (police lieutenant Ricardo Montalban uses the latest in forensic techniques to solve a mystery involving an unidentified skeleton). Disc Two features 1954's “Crime Wave” (reformed criminal Gene Nelson finds himself caught between a trio of old cronies–one played by Charles Bronson–who have busted out of prison and need him for a bank job and a cop who wants to use him to lure the others into a trap) and 1946's “Decoy” (in which gangster’s moll Jean Gillie goes to extraordinary lengths–including seduction, betrayal, kidnaping and reviving her executed boyfriend–to get her hands on a hidden $400,000). Disc Three kicks off with 1955's “Illegal” (after sending an innocent man to the electric chair, D.A. Edward G. Robinson goes into business for himself and becomes embroiled in a case involving a mob kingpin and a former protégée who has been accused of murder and corruption) and continues with 1949's “The Big Steal” (a Don Siegel film in which noir stalwarts Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer play a mismatched couple chasing a con man across Mexico). Disc Four has 1949's “They Live By Night” (a Nicholas Ray film about the doomed romance between a young prison escapee trying to go straight and the sweet girl who loves him–if it sounds familiar, it is because Robert Altman retold the same story as 1974's “Thieves Like Us”) and 1950's “Side Street” (broke mailman Farley Granger gets in big trouble when he steals $30,000 from a pair of violent blackmailers and then gets in bigger trouble when he tries to return it and discovers that the person he gave it to for safekeeping has skipped town). Disc Five starts of with 1950's “Where Danger Ends” (in which young doctor Robert Mitchum falls for suicidal Faith Domergue and winds up on the run with her in Mexico when her husband is killed during a confrontation) and concludes with “Tension” (druggist Richard Baseheart gets dumped by his wife for another man and concocts the perfect plan for assuming a false identity and killing his rival–alas, someone else kills the guy first and implicates Baseheart instead.)
FIREHOUSE DOG (Fox Home Entertainment. $29.99): A pampered movie-star dog gets separated from his entourage and turns up at a run-down firehouse where his ability to assist in fighting fires helps a father and son to reconnect while putting out a string of mysterious blazes and yes, I am as bored writing this description as you presumably are reading it.
GLASS SPIDER TOUR (Virgin Records. $39.98): Having built up an enormous amount of goodwill with fans and critics with the massive success of the 1983 album “Let’s Dance,” David Bowie proceeded to squander virtually all of it only a couple of years later with a pair of uninspired follow-up albums–1984's “Tonight” and 1987's “Never Let Me Down”–and a disastrous tour to promote the latter that was widely for its over-the-top theatricality (the show opened with Bowie descending from a 60-ft spider and went on from there) and lack of fresh material. While admittedly a mess, the show was at least an unforgettable mess and curiosity seekers might get a kick out of this concert DVD that combines performances from two Melbourne shows. Although available in a DVD-only package, Bowie fanatics will want to pick up this special edition that also includes a live 2-CD set recorded from an earlier show on the tour that finally allows the not-bad music (including a band featuring Peter Frampton on lead guitar) to take center stage without being overwhelmed by the visuals.
HOT FUZZ (Universal Home Entertainment. $29.98): In their follow-up to the cult comedy hit “Shaun of the Dead,” director Edgar Wright and co-stars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost do the same thing for over-the-top action films that they did for zombie films–they have created an absolutely hilarious film that affectionately skewers the conventions of the genre while simultaneously working as a superior example of that same genre. The extras here include a commentary from Wright and Pegg, a subtitle track pointing out the homages to the various action films that served as inspiration, deleted scenes, outtakes and one oddball bit in which Pegg and Frost act out a brief scene from the film while impersonating the voices of Sean Connery and Michael Caine.
LONELY HEARTS (Sony Home Entertainment. $24.95): The strange story of Martha Beck and Raymond Fernandez–the so-called “Lonely Heart Killers” who scammed and killed a string of widows during a notorious crime spree in the 1940's–has already inspired two acclaimed movies (1970's “The Honeymoon Killers” and 1997's “Deep Crimson”) but this third version of the tale barely made a ripple when it briefly appeared in theaters last spring despite a cast including Salma Hayek and Jared Leto as Beck and Fernandez and John Travolta and James Gandolfini as the detectives on their trail. Interestingly, the detective portrayed in the film by Travolta was, in real life, the grandfather of director Todd Robinson.
MISSION OF THE SHARK–THE SAGA OF THE U.S.S. INDIANAPOLIS (MGM Home Entertainment. $14.98): Made for television in 1991 (by Robert Iscove, who would go on to direct “She’s All That” and “From Justin to Kelly”), this film tells the harrowing true story of the sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis while on a secret mission to deliver the A-Bombs that would eventually be dropped on Japan to end World War II, the struggle amongst the crew to survive in the water in the face of exposure and repeated shark attacks and the court-martial that was lodged against the ship’s captain (Stacy Keach). In case this sounds a little familiar to you, this story also served as the basis for Robert Shaw’s electrifying monologue in “Jaws” in which he explains his scars and tells why he never wears a life jacket.
PATHFINDER (Fox Home Entertainment. $29.99): After postponing the release of this Viking-themed dud for more than a year, Fox finally tossed it out into theaters last spring in the hopes of cashing in on the success of “300.” Therefore, are you really that surprised to discover that the studio is issuing it on DVD the very same week that “300" hits store shelves?
PLAYBOY PLAYMATE OF THE YEAR 2007 (Playboy Home Video. $19.99): Of course, in a contest such as this, there are no losers. That said, I just have to say that Miss March and Miss August were totally robbed.
REBUS–SET 2 (Acorn Media. $49.99): Of course, if you prefer your U.K.-based crime stories to be a little more serious and straightforward than “Hot Fuzz,” you should check out this collection of four television movies featuring the character of John Rebus, the tough Scottish police inspector created by crime novelist Ian Rankin. In the four films collected here, Rebus (Ken Stott) investigates cases that involve a Parliament member who may be a serial killer (“The Black Book”), a school shooting in which a distant relative was one of the victims (“A Question of Blood”), the murder of the wife of a rich social activist that may be the work of another serial killer (“Strip Jack”) and a suicide that turns out to have links to some of Edinburgh’s most powerful citizens (“Let It Bleed”).
ROVING MARS (Buena Vista Home Entertainment. $29.99): Oddly enough, the main feature on this DVD–a 2006 IMAX documentary about the design and launching of the two Mars Rover robots that promises plenty of astonishing footage of the Red Planet but which actually gives us a lot of computer simulations and only a moment or two of its actual surface–is the least-interesting thing on it. Far more intriguing (and longer than the 40-minute main feature by 10 minutes) is “Mars And Beyond,” a fascinating bit of retro-future nostalgia in which Walt Disney himself takes on a tour of the possibilities of space travel that were considered to be just around the corner back in 1957.
SABRINA THE TEENAGE WITCH–THE SECOND SEASON (Paramount Home Video. $38.99): Look, I am perfectly happy just to have another available season of the wildly underrated TV spinoff of the popular comic book heroine–if only for the spirited and funny performances from Melissa Joan Hart as the title character and Nick Bakay as her semi-loyal cat Salem–but seriously, would it kill Paramount to throw the show’s loyal fans a bone and tack on a special feature or two. I can’t be the only one yearning for a Salem commentary track, can I?
STARTER FOR 10 (HBO Home Video. $27.98): In this quirky little romantic comedy from England and set in the glory days of 1985, working-class kid James McAvoy enrolls at Bristol University and tries to make the cut for the school’s quiz team while trying to choose between the two women he is simultaneously crushing on–blonde bombshell Alice Eve or brainy brunette Rebecca Hall (the looker from “The Prestige” that wasn’t Piper Perabo or Scarlett Johansson). The film starts off kind of slow and never really breaks away from its familiar trappings but it is sweet and reasonably charming nonetheless.